Chapter XXII. A Telegram
 

I was startled and indignant when I discovered Mr. Allen Price with my handbag, trying to open it. It looked very much as if my fellow-passenger was endeavoring to rob me.

I had suspected from the start that this man was not "straight." There was that peculiar something about his manner which I did not like. He had been altogether too familiar from the first; too willing to make himself agreeable.

What he expected to find in my bag I could not imagine. If his mission was robbery pure and simple, why had he not selected some one who looked richer than myself? There was, I am certain, nothing about me to make him believe I had anything of great value in the bag.

"What are you doing with my valise?" I demanded as I straightened up.

My sudden question made the man almost jump to his feet. The bag dropped from his lap to the floor, and the keys in his hand jingled after it.

"I-- I-- didn't think you were awake," he stammered.

"You didn't?" I repeated, puzzled as to what to say.

"No-- I-- I--"

"You were trying to open my bag."

"So I was-- but it's all a mistake, I assure you."

"A mistake?"

"Quite a mistake, Strong." He cleared his throat. "The fact is, I'm suffering so from the toothache that I'm hardly able to judge of what I'm doing. I thought your bag was my own."

"They are not much alike," I returned bluntly.

"Well, you see mine is a new one, and I'm not used to it yet. I hope you don't think I was trying to rob you?" he went on, with a look of reproach.

I was silent. I did think that that was just what he was trying to do, but I hardly cared to say so.

"It's awful to have such toothaches as I get," he continued, putting his hand to his cheek. "They come on me unawares, and drive me frantic. I wanted to get my teeth attended to in Jersey City when I was there, but I didn't have time."

"What's this on the handkerchief?" I asked.

"Oh, I guess I spilled some of my toothache cure on it," he replied, after some hesitation. "I used some and then put the bottle back in the valise. That's how I came to look for the bottle again. I hope you're not offended. It was all a mistake."

"It's all right if that's the case," I returned coolly.

Holding my valise on my lap, I settled back in the seat again, but not to sleep. The little adventure had aroused me thoroughly. Mr. Allen Price sat beside me for a few moments in silence.

"Guess I'll go into the smoker," he said finally, as he rose. "Maybe a cigar will help me," and taking up his handbag, he walked down the aisle.

In a dreamy way I meditated over what had occurred. I could not help but think that the handkerchief I had found spread over my face had been saturated with chloroform, and that my fellow-passenger had endeavored to put me in a sound sleep and then rifle my bag. Of course I might be mistaken, but still I was positive that Mr. Allen Price would bear watching.

About four o'clock in the morning the train came to a sudden stop. The jar was so pronounced that it woke nearly all of the passengers.

Thinking that possibly we had arrived at our destination, I raised the window and peered out.

Instead of being in the heart of a city, however, I soon discovered we were in a belt of timber land. Huge trees lined the road on both sides, and ahead I could hear the flowing of a mountain stream.

The train hands were out with their lanterns, and by their movements it was plain to see that something was up.

I waited in my seat for ten minutes or more, and then as a number of passengers left the car, I took up my bag and did the same.

A walk to the front of the train soon made known the cause of the delay. Over a small mountain stream a strong wooden bridge with iron frame had been built. Near the bridge grew a number of tall trees, and one of these had been washed loose by the water and overturned in such a manner that the largest branch blocked the progress of the locomotive. The strong headlight had revealed the state of affairs to the engineer, and he had stopped within five feet of the obstruction. Had he run on, it is impossible to calculate what amount of damage might have been done.

"Don't see what we are going to do, except to run back to Smalleyville," said the engineer, who was in consultation with the conductor.

"Can't we roll the tree out of the way?" asked the latter official.

The engineer shook his head.

"Too heavy. All the men on the train couldn't budge it."

They stood in silence for a moment.

"If you had a rope, you could make the engine haul it," I suggested to the fireman, who was a young fellow.

"A good idea," he exclaimed, and reported it to his superior.

"First-class plan; but we haven't got the rope," said the engineer.

"Have you got an axe?"

"Yes."

"Then why not chop it off?"

"That's so! Larry, bring the axes."

"It won't do any good," said one of the brakemen who had just come up. "The bridge has shifted."

An examination proved his assertion to be correct. As soon as this became known, a danger light was hung at either end of the structure, and then we started running backward to Smalleyville.

"How long will this delay us?" I asked of the conductor as he came through, explaining matters.

"I can't tell. Perhaps only a few hours, perhaps more. It depends on how soon the wrecking gang arrive on the spot. As soon as they get there, they will go right to work, and it won't take them long to fix matters up."

Smalleyville proved to be a small town of not over five hundred inhabitants. There was quite an excitement around the depot when the train came in, and despatches were sent in various directions.

Presently a shower came up, and this drove the passengers to the cars and the station. I got aboard the train at first to listen to what the train hands might have to say. I found one of the brakemen quite a friendly fellow, and willing to talk.

"This rain will make matters worse," said he. "That tree was leaning against the bridge for all it was worth, and if it loosens any more it will carry the thing away clean."

"Isn't there danger of trains coming from the other way?"

"Not now. We've telegraphed to Chicago, and no train will leave till everything is in running order."

"When does the next train arrive behind us?"

"At 9.30 this morning."

We chatted for quite a while. Then there was a commotion on the platform, and we found that part of the wrecking gang had arrived on a hand-car.

They brought with them a great lot of tools, and soon a flat car with a hoisting machine was run out of a shed, and they were off.

By this time it was raining in torrents, and the station platform was deserted. Not caring to get wet, I again took my seat in the car, and presently fell asleep.

When I awoke I found it was six o'clock. The rain still fell steadily, without signs of abating.

I was decidedly hungry, and buttoning my coat up tightly about my neck, I sallied forth in search of a restaurant.

I found one within a block of the depot, and entering, I called for some coffee and muffins-- first, however, assuring myself that my train was not likely to leave for fully an hour.

While busy with what the waiter had brought, I saw Mr. Allen Price enter. Luckily the table I sat at was full, and he was compelled to take a seat some distance from me.

"Good morning, my young friend," said he, as he stopped for an instant in front of me.

I was surprised at his pleasant manner. He acted as if nothing had ever happened to bring up a coolness between us.

"Good morning," I replied briefly.

"Terrible rain, this, isn't it?"

"It is."

"My toothache's much better," he went on, "and I feel like myself once more. Funny I mistook your valise for mine, last night, wasn't it?"

"I don't know," I replied flatly.

I returned to my breakfast, and, seeing I would not converse further, the man passed on and sat down. But I felt that his eyes were on me, and instinctively I made up my mind to be on my guard.

As I was about to leave the place, several more passengers came in, and by what they said I learned that the train would not start for Chicago till noon, the bridge being so badly damaged that the road engineer would not let anything cross until it was propped up.

Not caring to go back to the train, I entered the waiting-room and took in all there was to be seen. At one end of the place was a news stand, and I walked up to this to look at the picture papers that were displayed.

I was deeply interested in a cartoon on the middle pages of an illustrated paper when I heard Mr. Price's voice asking for some Chicago daily, and then making inquiries as to where the telegraph once was located.

He did not see me, and I at once stepped out of sight behind him.

Having received his directions, Mr. Price sat down to write out his telegram. Evidently what he wrote did not satisfy him, for he tore up several slips of paper before he managed to prepare one that suited him.

Then he arose, and throwing the scraps in a wad on the floor, walked away.

Unobserved, I picked up the wad. Right or wrong, I was bound to see what it contained. Perhaps it might be of no earthly interest to me; on the other hand, it might contain much I would desire to know. Strange things had happened lately, and I was prepared for all sorts of surprises.

A number of the slips of paper were missing and the remainder were so crumpled that the pencil marks were nearly illegible.

At length I managed to fit one of the sheets together and then read these words:--

C. Hholtzmann, Chicago:

Look out for a young man claiming to--